Are You Ready for the Next Crisis?

September 18, 2018 |
2 minute read

Ten years ago Lehman Brothers failed, representing the largest bankruptcy in history, and accelerating a global financial crisis that would knock many non-profit portfolios backward. This came on the heels of the tech bubble bursting just eight years earlier, which had triggered a painful recession and caused steep losses in equity markets. Investors were essentially hit with two “100-year storms” in the same decade—and had to rebuild. The good news is that markets have been relatively calm since the fall of 2008. The bad news is that another crisis will inevitably upset the financial markets. And so on the 10-year anniversary of Lehman, we should ask ourselves, are we ready for the next financial pothole?

At Commonfund, we are having important discussions with clients on their preparedness for the next crisis. For example, we are working with clients to develop a road map, or “crisis playbook,” designed to help chart what decisions clients need to make during the next crisis. For our clients, there are two types of crises they must prepare for: a market event causing significant losses in portfolio value, and an event specific to the organization, such as steep decline in a key revenue source (tuition, as an example). In a worst case scenario, these two events can be correlated, which makes understanding their interplay so critical in navigating the storm.

Most institutional investors have a strategic policy portfolio and, after a decade of favorable markets, they often say that they take a long term approach and will stick to their policy. But to paraphrase former boxer Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get hit. It is never pleasant to think about negative scenarios, but it is certainly easier now than when the crisis is unfolding. Asking questions as simple as “what are we going to do if our portfolio drops 20%?” can help set expectations that can guide you through challenging conditions when they arise. But it’s important to recognize that there are many layers to explore when creating a comprehensive “crisis playbook”. Many investment committees spend time on the quantitative aspects of scenario analyses and stress testing. But it is also important to ask, “What are the likely behavioral reactions of your investment committee?”

Since we’ve had calm waters for ten years, there’s a good chance that there are committee members who were not on the investment committee the last time a crisis hit, or who have not been through a crisis before. How will those individuals react? How will the group react? Another important consideration is the impact on the broader financial ecosystem, including stress points on other sources of revenue, expenses, and overall operating dynamics. And let’s not forget, it is likely that your constituents will also be in the path of the storm—and it will be important to ask whether their needs may increase at exactly the same time your resources to meet those needs are impaired. In the end, a crisis event will have impacts that extend beyond a drop in the portfolio. The associated effects can be just as challenging, and their impacts can be felt for a long period afterward.

It is also important to keep in mind that doing nothing during a crisis is itself a decision that may influence the portfolio’s ability to recover to pre-crisis levels. As the chart below shows, rebalancing to policy target following a sizeable downturn in equities may help boost long term investment performance, even beyond the historical average. And potentially, it can be more difficult, if not impossible, to recover without taking some type of action.


Asking these questions can be an effective starting point to creating a framework for your crisis playbook. This playbook can serve as a roadmap to guide you when the storm is at its peak, visibility is low, and tensions are high. At a fundamental level, you will need to decide if you are going to stick with your existing strategic policy, if you are going to reduce risk in your portfolio, or if you need to cut or increase spending. While these questions seem basic, they are important to ask today, as your answers can have long term, significant impacts on how you navigate the next crisis, and the degree to which you recover…or not.

Want to learn more?  Click here to contact us today.

Timothy T. Yates, Jr.


Timothy T. Yates, Jr.

President and CEO, Commonfund OCIO

Timothy T. Yates, Jr.


Deborah Spalding

Chief Investment Officer

Stay connected with the Insights Blog

Popular Blog Posts

Market Commentary | Insights Blog

Chart of the Month | The Surprising Relationship Between Money Supply and Inflation

The potential for rising inflation is becoming a top concern for many investors and consumers. Many believe that inflation is already here as evidenced by price increases in commodities, homes,...
Perspectives | Insights Blog

The Case for Using the Higher Education Price Index® (HEPI) to Define Inflation for Colleges

When calculating return targets for an endowment portfolio, a conventional piece of the equation is often the Consumer Price Index (CPI). CPI plus 5% is the common short-hand formula for institutions...
Governance And Policy | Insights Blog

Endowment Management and the Three Primary Responsibilities of a Board

The fourth blog in the “Six Ps of Investment Stewardship” series addresses People, specifically how boards function within an organization. To learn more about the first four principles in the series...


Certain information contained herein has been obtained from or is based on third-party sources and, although believed to be reliable, has not been independently verified. Such information is as of the date indicated, if indicated, may not be complete, is subject to change and has not necessarily been updated. No representation or warranty, express or implied, is or will be given by The Common Fund for Nonprofit Organizations, any of its affiliates or any of its or their affiliates, trustees, directors, officers, employees or advisers (collectively referred to herein as “Commonfund”) or any other person as to the accuracy or completeness of the information in any third-party materials. Accordingly, Commonfund shall not be liable for any direct, indirect or consequential loss or damage suffered by any person as a result of relying on any statement in, or omission from, such third-party materials, and any such liability is expressly disclaimed.

All rights to the trademarks, copyrights, logos and other intellectual property listed herein belong to their respective owners and the use of such logos hereof does not imply an affiliation with, or endorsement by, the owners of such trademarks, copyrights, logos and other intellectual property.

To the extent views presented forecast market activity, they may be based on many factors in addition to those explicitly stated herein. Forecasts of experts inevitably differ. Views attributed to third-parties are presented to demonstrate the existence of points of view, not as a basis for recommendations or as investment advice. Market and investment views of third-parties presented herein do not necessarily reflect the views of Commonfund, any manager retained by Commonfund to manage any investments for Commonfund (each, a “Manager”) or any fund managed by any Commonfund entity (each, a “Fund”). Accordingly, the views presented herein may not be relied upon as an indication of trading intent on behalf of Commonfund, any Manager or any Fund.

Statements concerning Commonfund’s views of possible future outcomes in any investment asset class or market, or of possible future economic developments, are not intended, and should not be construed, as forecasts or predictions of the future investment performance of any Fund. Such statements are also not intended as recommendations by any Commonfund entity or any Commonfund employee to the recipient of the presentation. It is Commonfund’s policy that investment recommendations to its clients must be based on the investment objectives and risk tolerances of each individual client. All market outlook and similar statements are based upon information reasonably available as of the date of this presentation (unless an earlier date is stated with regard to particular information), and reasonably believed to be accurate by Commonfund. Commonfund disclaims any responsibility to provide the recipient of this presentation with updated or corrected information or statements. Past performance is not indicative of future results. For more information please refer to Important Disclosures.